Friday, November 30, 2007

A Whaling We Will Go!

What peculiar intransigence demonstrated by Japan in the face of the reality of a declining whale population and the outraged reaction of world opinion at her stance on embarking on a full-scale whaling adventure. Truly it is odd. Japan doesn't enjoy being singled out for criticism. The national psyche is one of modesty and unimpeachable law abidance. She is sensitive to bringing attention to herself, particularly attention of censure.

Yet in the matter of whaling and her right, as a maritime nation - a series of three islands surrounded by water, whose population has traditionally fed itself on the bounty of the seas - she remains adamant that she has the right to pursue activities seen as being in the best interests of the nation.

Maritime creatures of the deep have always been Japan's supermarket. Her people, fastidious and adventuresome food addicts, applaud her determination to defy global censure.

After all, this expedition has been launched in the interests of science. It is not billed as an expedition meant to harvest the glory of the seas for public consumption within that island nation. Japan has embarked on a pursuit whose scientific discoveries will be of supreme benefit to the entire global scientific community.

Scooping up marine life the better to know it. To examine its presence from the most minute organisms to the elephants of the sea. As opaque an argument as any conceivable.

Their quota on this scientific expedition no fewer than 850 whales, including 50 humpbacks, a protected and endangered species. Japanese scientists, however, contend in their great wisdom that the humpback has recovered in sufficient quantities that their hunt will pose no difficulties to their further recovery.

They are an honourable people, if, perhaps, somewhat misguided in this very particular instance. The cover and bluster has turned a shade of purple, however, with the news that the government of Japan has initiated a campaign to encourage its people to expand their menus to include greater portions of whale meat.

Toward which end street stalls have now begun serving up box lunches featuring whale meat. To popularize the new menu and just incidentally assist the government in its mission to launch a return of full-scale commercial sweeping of the bottom of the sea.

Jaded appetites? Japanese are never averse to dining on blowfish despite their acute reputation for ill preparation resulting in unfortunate poisoning events with nasty consequences.

The Japanese palate is more than adequately tickled by traditional Japanese fare. And, in the great streets of Tokyo and beyond there is no lack of gustatory opportunities in the great numbers of restaurants and fine dining establishments representing the cuisine of every country of the world.

Sometimes people - and their politicians - just dig in their heels, unwilling to accommodate themselves to the dictates of others, even when to do so has the potential to be injurious to themselves in the long run. Pity.

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What Dictatorship?

It strains credulity. Why would the outside world, let alone those within Russia who urgently contend that Vladimir Putin has dark aspirations toward dictatorship, believe such a canard? Truth is, this valiant, courageous man of strong convictions and a deep love for his country is entirely selfless, wanting only what is best for Mother Russia. Those troubled souls with a dark cynical essence in their characters truly besmirch his good name.

It may appear to the onlooker that he has such tendencies as the willingness to suspend legality in the interests of maintaining his iron grip on national power. It may seem to some that he is guilty of human rights violations in conspiring to eradicate the voices of those who seek the truth, and finding it, threaten to unveil conspiratorial evidence of evil incarnate. They will no longer revel in such righteous activities, having met unfortunate early death.

Coincidences do happen, after all. The war on Chechnya, after all, is a rightful one, battling Islamic terrorists who would do grave damage to Russia - who have in fact, inflicted dreadful wounds on the country. So Russia knows terrorism, and seeks to expunge it from its soil, its proximity. President Putin is also eminently practical and sees nothing amiss in arming terrorist activity in other geographies that do not threaten his own.

All power to the president! And indeed he has great power. He relishes it, and intends to hang on. Indeed, his collegial former KGB pals, enriched by his hold on power, now exercising their power options and lining their pockets have their stake in his presence as well. He will not go quietly into that dark night of anonymity. Surrender power? Not he one to slip into obscurity!

Kremlin nuisance Garry Kasparov and his insipid threat to United Russia can be likened to a moose flicking a mosquito off its flank.

The nerve of the man, suggesting that "This regime is entering a very dangerous phase that is turning it into a dictatorship"! Unequivocal nonsense, and not to be tolerated. Back to prison, with you, Mr. Kasparov. You think you were ill treated in your latest incarceration? Just wait. As leader of Other Russia, you'll be put in your place. There have been other challengers before you, kindly to recall.

You chafe at a handful of days spent in prison? Think of political activist/oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky! He is not a happy man. Remember Alexander Litvinenko? The name Anna Politkovskaya ring a bell? In any event, it is to no avail. Your party is forecasted to win not one single seat. President Putin is playing the scare card, employing fear tactics.

It works. He is set to claim a majority. Again. And then it's smooth sailing for him. In which interest he is warning Russians that to consider casting a vote for your party is to ensure a return to "humiliation, dependency and disintegration". Recalling the sad, bad days of the USSR collapse and the resulting chaos, and economic dislocation.

Still, it's puzzling. Given the undeniable fact of his raving popularity among the population, his support among the youth demographic, why is he extending himself to such a degree? He is assured a win, he will be ushered into the Prime Ministership, primed to return once again as President, so why is he foaming and fulminating so strenuously?

Does he suspect something we don't?

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Insulting Islam

Inadvertent insults to the honour of Islam and its Prophet garners the incautious reflection-inducing threats of a type unimaginable in a western democracy. We simply cannot get it through our obviously thick skulls that insults, however unintended, will not be countenanced by the Islamic world. Islamic fanatics live on a knife-edge of awareness, quick to identify slurs against their faith, their Prophet.

And the penalties for transgressions, however minor they might appear to be to the rational mind, can be life-threatening at one extreme; experience-sobering at the other. Salmon Rushdie knows of the former, through the institution of a fatwa against his dread writerly impudence; Danish cartoonists know of the shattering middle-ground where Muslim rage can affect the bottom line of an entire country through association.

And now Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old British elementary school teacher working in Sudan is aware of the latter kind of punishment. She was originally looking at the imposition of a state-imposed charge of blasphemy under sharia law which would punish her with three months' imprisonment and 40 lashes. Punishment for lack of alertness.

To the fact that encouraging her grade two class of 7-year-olds to name a teddy bear after the Prophet Muhammad constituted a grave offence. Succumbing to the appeals of one of her 7-year-old charges whose name in fact was Muhammad, and who felt that the teddy bear whose function it would be to become a mascot to the entire class, should be named after him. Most of the other children in the class enthusiastically agreed.

Her fellow teachers at the independent international school serving ordinary Sudanese families, along with the children of diplomats were in agreement that she had done nothing deliberately to offend Sudanese religious sensibilities. Except for one teacher, herself a religious fundamentalist who fumed at the insult to Islam and who reported her to the authorities.

In Sudan human rights violations which see the government in Khartoum encouraging Arab janjaweed in league with the government's armed forces attack, murder, rape and throw thousands out of their homes into refugee camps is no crime, but a simple defence against insurgency. While a naive foreigner's inadvertent foray into the arcane world of sidestepping insults to Islam is a matter of grave government concern.

Reflecting the attitudes, or perhaps fomenting the attitudes of its greater population ready to march in high dudgeon through the streets of the capital, to descend upon the mixed Christian-Muslim school with a mind to attacking the institution whose board had the good sense to temporarily close it down. Fully realizing what would transpire as a result of the perceived insult.

Ms. Gibson was charged, incarcerated, a brief trial ensued, and as a result of world-wide outraged response to the absurdity of the situation and the charges, was given a 15-day prison sentence followed by an expulsion from the country.

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Whither Braggadocio?

Imagine the miserable suspense that holds Lord Black in thrall as he awaits his sentencing in Chicago. For he is somewhat perturbed at the prospect of what possibly awaits his near future, make no mistake. This, despite his post-trial boasting that no evil would befall him, he would be spared, for he places great trust in justice and in justice would the truth prevail.

Rather absurd, given that he was already in the dock for serious offences, charged and found guilty of fraud and obstruction of justice.

Yet, he uttered, with great self confidence, the court would "yield a just result". Conceivably offering him a gentle slap on his upturned wrist, gently chide him for his ethical indiscretions, and casually wave him on without any tedious and time-consuming penalties, to the next phase of his life, which he is more than ready to embark upon.

In the interim, that space of time between verdict and sentencing, a little nervous mouse of "what-if" has been nibbling away at his confidence.

It's just not fair! We should all of us exhale a sigh of regret and compassion on behalf of this insufficiently-appreciated man whose footprint on the world stage has never quite been given the acknowledgement he so desperately seeks. Celebrity yes, pile it on. Notoriety, no thank you. They've both been earned, though. One sought, the other befallen. Life is so unfair.

He is, after all, a "person with a deep reservoir of kindness and generosity, one who has made significant contributions to society", we are informed. Who could doubt that he is a kind and generous man, particularly to himself, acceding graciously to his inherent need to succeed, to garner praise, and to heap upon himself titles and cash awards, equal to his status in life?

His contributions to society? Well, for starters, his keen eye in purchasing bargain-sale business on the cusp of ruin, raping their resources, booting out their employees, and tossing aside the spent shell. Then there's his literary accomplishments: his affinity for elegant prose and the dense dark matter of language and history granting the world yet more biographies of hitherto-overlooked political personalities of little note: like Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Still, for the piddling social infringement of the law whereby he undertook to enrich himself a trifle illegally, he has endured, we are also informed "unimaginable pain" as a result of "immeasurable suffering" during the past five years. Years during which his integrity has been impugned, his honesty and dignity have been called into question and defiled by nasty charges of corruption.

Ah, the character witnesses that have been brought forth to attest to his sound character and value to society; impressive beyond doubt. All agreeing that tough sentencing guidelines proposed for Lord Black "offends fundamental notions of justice". In that this sterling character whose unctuous pomposity and sense of self-entitlement so given to titles and ermine cloaks is undeserving of society's censure and the weight of justice declared.

Ah - schadenfreude at the plight of this beleaguered man of letters, captain of industry fallen from grace. How unkind, how perfectly untoward life can prove to be. This is not the avaricious cynic of regal aspirations we of the great unwashed take him to be, not at all. This is a good-natured and sweet-tempered man who seeks to acquire only that which he has rightly earned, in his regard.

The consequences of which have, in the most twisted fashion, caused him great pain as he "has watched his family suffer untold agonies at the hands of the savage and reckless press"; as his health and that of his family have been impaired through the onset of severe problems related "to the tribulations endured by the entire family".

His public outbursts proclaiming his innocence, despite the damning evidence and eloquent witness brought against him in a trial of law, should have alerted us to his innocence. Justice truly is blind, that it could not recognize the nobility of this man. He knows, though; he predicted his acquittal before, during and after his trial.

That his manner and confidence irritated his prosecutors (persecutors!) and trial Judge St. Eve is well known. And really, most unfortunate.

But truly, we know him not; he is but a family man, a loving father and husband. An intellectual, author, business proprietor, a standard-bearer of all that is admirable in a public figure of sterling repute. A man of deep spiritual faith - one who has installed his own very personal "spare and elegant" chapel in his Toronto mansion.

What do we grubby onlookers know of the true value of such patricians among us who, after all, are entitled to certain passes in life that we are not. The wealthy are not like those of society's benighted ordinary class.

Just ask Lord Black of Cross Harbour.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

In Memoriam : Ian Smith

Now there's an unlikely hero, a champion of human rights. Alongside the miserable condition of Apartheid in South Africa, Rhodesia's native population was a study in discriminatory state policies championing the rightful ascension and power over its black population by its white minority. The name of Ian Smith will go down in the annals of history as a prime racist.

Or will it? Should it? Despite that by any definition of the term, he would qualify.

Who, in the end, has done the more harm to the population of the country? Under the racist leadership of Ian Smith, former prime minister of Rhodesia, that country prospered, its people well looked after. Educational opportunities, health care provisions, the overall standard of living, employment and life expectancy were all reflective of the white-dominated governance of the time.

In a word, superlative. Which would appear to be why, long after Mr. Smith was forced to step down as prime minister of the country, through the revulsion of the world at large at the very concept of white supremacy over an indigenous black majority and the intransigence of his view that white rule was superior and in fact better for the country, he remained to be honoured by a large segment of the country's black population.

His condemnation of the current administration whom he termed "gangsters" earned him applause and approval by the people he once dominated. Initially, Mr. Smith took great pains to offer his experience in government and administration to the first black prime minister of Rhodesia, Robert Mugabe. His first concerns were for the well-being of the country he loved.

Their co-operation lasted as long as Ian Smith's restraint in criticizing Mr. Mugabe, after which incident he was no longer welcome to offer his expertise and concern. It was his popularity with the people of the country, re-named Zimbabwe, that ensured his safety against the wrath of Robert Mugabe. And he died peacefully, an old man content enough with his personal history.

Robert Mugabe has been the ruination of his country. His tyrannical, self-availing administration has resulted in privation and starvation and a condition of hopelessness prevailing throughout the country. His political opponents have been hounded, beaten, incarcerated. The justice system has been corrupted, his control over the media is absolute. The economy is in complete disarray.

The country that Ian Smith ruled with his disciplined racist hand has been transformed into a basket case limping along into an uncertain future under Robert Mugabe. The lesson being? Who knows... But no one could possibly argue that Zimbabweans don't deserve better.

Independence, dignity and freedom do not guarantee justice will prevail. There is little dignity in privation. The freedom to live with conditions of dire needs not met is a hollow manifestation of independence.

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The Practical Utility of Two States

Think about it, sixty years of torment and grief. Time willingly sacrificed in the name of a grudge, however justified in the estimation of the self-proclaimed victims. It is in human nature to balk against sharing something as precious as territory with all it entails, when one is convinced one is the sole and rightful owner thereof. That too can be in the mind of the aggrieved. Two demographics living side by side, in restive neighbourliness.

Each pursuing their own dreams and aspirations, each reflecting their own heritage and traditions, neither sharing the unifying possibilities of a single religion. Accommodating themselves to the presence of the other. While at the same time having to accept the occasional demonstration of hostility through violence and bloodshed. Settling down anew to begin the process of grudging accommodation, and the cycle continues.

Until finally cataclysmic world events conspire to offer to one group an opportunity it required no enticements to grasp. For the establishment of a state, for ethnic-inspired nationhood, for a badly needed salve to heal the wounds of the assaults against its imperative to exist as a people. A state that would be its own, to offer refuge and sanctuary where none could be found elsewhere in the world.

Discommoding the alter demographic in the process, but this would represent nothing particularly new in a world so often comprised of shifting and migrating populations. The Palestinian rejection of partition, the allocating of a specific portion of the shared geography to a nascent Jewish state, the rest to the Palestinians was rejected outright by the Palestinians.

The resulting abandonment of their place in the geography through panic, temporary accommodation to an assembled Arab-nations assault, to the enthusiastic urgings of Jews, led to refugee status for some half-million Palestinians. In a world environment where there were hundreds of millions of displaced persons, post-war, awaiting eventual settlement elsewhere in the world.

A spirit of acceptance, of generosity, of co-operation in the face of a fait accompli, might have accomplished much. It would have led inexorably to an initial two-state reality. With the more socially and technologically and educationally ambitiously-advanced state seeing it in both their interests to aid and assist the other in advancing both their futures.

The choice was otherwise. The choice was to stand firm, demand the obliteration of the new state. To demand full and total ownership of the geography for the Palestinian Arabs. Which bought them refugee camps and poverty. Non-acceptance into the social and political life of the countries that grudgingly, temporarily absorbed their presence within UN-funded refugee camps.

Which also bought the West Bank domination by Jordan, and the Gaza Strip, absorption by Egypt. But the burning ember leading to the firestorm of terrorism was never permitted to die out. It was coddled and smouldered and finally leaped into the full flare of violent jihad, and so it has remained to this day. Sacrificing opportunities for decent lives and livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

And in the process teaching their sons and their daughters to value the concept of holy sacrifice, of offering up their souls and their presence on earth to the sacred duty to Allah of avenging the slur to His honour and their own collective honour. Suicide-murderers triumphed in the numbers of their victims. Their families basked in the honour due them through the brilliant suicide-murder exploits of their offspring.

Blood-money masquerading as the earnings of martyrs ensured their economic well-being through the kindly auspices of terror-supporting theocracies, kingdoms, sheikdoms.

Can that land ever be shared? Is it possible to salvage hope for the creation of a two-state solution? Will Arab countries ever unequivocally accept the presence of Israel in their midst? Are there no other Anwar Sadats in existence in the Arab world? Might there be some tempted to emulate his courage, but held back by his ultimate reward?

Will it forever be, as Yasser Arafat explained to Oriana Fallaci: "The end of Israel is the goal of our struggle. Peace for us means the destruction of Israel and nothing else."

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Bombast and Bonhomie

They met, they posed, they posited. With that assurance for the future, we may now all breathe a sigh of immense relief and get on with our lives. Much as the principals will debark, continue the debate ad infinitum, debase the principles they embraced and get on with the more serious business of confrontation, accusation, violence and blood-letting.

The core element which might conceivably lead to a release of the impasse was the one vital ingredient missing throughout the public display of collective support and resolve. Recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish nation, among her geographic Arab neighbour-nations. So, in fact, what has changed to create a new, more accepting environment?

Not one shred of unanimity from among the assembled representatives of Arab nations to finally relax their animosity at the presence of a Jewish state among their own, on what they perceive to be hallowed Islam-blessed land. That is the final sobering political reality. Not the arduous, perplexing, mind-numbing process of hammering out a agreement over borders, refugees, Jerusalem.

Absolutely nothing can be accomplished without the elemental issue of acceptance having first been established. It remains resoundingly absent. And distressingly clear that the peace process represents a temporary aberration in a larger landscape of rejection. Arabs are not given to compromise, and their memories remain rigidly focused on a blot on Islamic honour.

Honour is not to be trifled with in the world of Arab Islam. It is first and foremost among the qualities embraced by a fiercely self-absorbed, tradition-perpetuating primitive tribal mindset, reflecting a visceral reaction against foreign intrusion in the Arab world. The reasonable, practical acceptance of partition would have spared the world - Israel and the Palestinians 60 years of anguish.

It was not to be. And the present holds out no great promise for the future. There is no sincerity in evidence in the Arab world in dealing with the inconveniently insulting presence of Israel within its geography. Any country, like Jordan, albeit begrudgingly willing to accept her presence, could not possibly withstand the censure and the pressure applied from its Arab co-religionists.

Mahmoud Abbas, whose representative status as the primary leader of the Palestinian people under the umbrella of the Palestinian Authority is tenuous at best. He, along with his colleagues, and in tandem with Hamas, refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; they will only agree that Israel is a real presence, a tangible national, political portion of the geography.

The short-term goal is the realization of a Palestinian State. The long term goal is the eradication of the State of Israel leading to the enlargement of the Palestinian State. Arabs appear to be functionally incapable of moderation, of true co-operation, of submitting to any kind of armistice that they construe as defeat.

For to accept a portion of what they desire rather than the entirety of their demands is to lose face; honour defiled.

Ehud Olmert mentions the dread instilled in his people and his country by Palestinian terrorism, the disruption of thousands of lives, the destruction of families, and the dire need to forestall future such disasters. "We want peace. We demand a cessation of terror, incitement and hatred." Well might he state what he desires so desperately, but it seems destined to remain elusively beyond reality.

Israel may be prepared for a painful, danger-fraught compromise to achieve these reasonable aspirations whereby she may at last hope to live in peace and security among neighbours who no longer remain dedicated to her annihilation, but the fruition of such dreams remain as remote as they ever have been.

Good will and determination from one side only will not suffice to solve the intractable issue of her existence in that geography. The palpable hostility emanating from her neighbours is a direct encouragement to Islamist fanatic militias to continue their holy jihad against the Jewish state.

If any direct evidence of that hopeless view is required, the experience of Tzipni Livni, Israel's foreign minister who headed the Israeli negotiating team is a lesson in reality. She took pains to approach representatives of the 15 Arab nations present at the Annapolis conference, to try to arrange agreement for future meetings and was met with unequivocal disinterest.

Of the two Arab countries with which Israel has signed independent peace treaties, Jordan's foreign minister agreed to a meeting, while the Egyptian delegation refused. Does this auger well for the future? How welcoming a reaction can that be construed as under the circumstances? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wasn't far off the mark, calling the conference a failure.

He, after all, more than anyone, is likely to state the obvious. A conclusion that speaks to the detriment of Israeli aspirations, offering him the chortling opportunity for schadenfreude. Despite which Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah were beyond themselves with fury denouncing the perfidious abandonment to their shared cause through the presence of the 15 Arab countries at the conference.

Entertaining the world further by the spectacle of Ahmadinejad hectoring them for supporting the "cursed Zionist regime", and exercising his option as a self-regarding national leader of the Islamic world of political terrorism by faulting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in a telephone conversation, for his show of submission to U.S.-Israeli interests.

Not to fret, however, it was, after all, merely a show.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Expendable Children

The world is full of tragedies, personal and aggregate. Children are tragically the most vulnerable demographic in any society and the most affected by events betraying their best interests, affecting their well being in the most serious ways with far-reaching consequences for the best interests of any society's future. Their very dependence for emotional well being and material support leaves them helpless, the first line of victims in any societal upheaval.

China may be experiencing a burgeoning economic growth, where greater numbers of its people are succeeding to middle class status, and where consumer goods are increasingly available to greater numbers of its urban class. But the trickle-down of this newly-emerging prosperity to the rural areas has been slow, and in many instances entirely non-existent. Progress also means that traditional farming communities are losing their arable lands to commercial installations.

In far-flung rural communities there is scant employment, and subsistence farming, leaving people in true poverty and desperate need. The solution to which is often found in parents deciding to migrate to urban centres in a search of employment, leaving their infants and their children behind, most often in the care of grandparents. Entire communities have become accustomed to accepting the reality of "left-behind" children.

These are children whose fundamental needs have been sacrificed, whose development has been arrested through lack of emotional support, whose interest in life has been scarified, and whose purpose to themselves and to society has been denied. There is no one to look after the needs of young children; they learn to live on their own and to look listlessly after their own needs. Grandparents are often incapable of supporting their needs.

One-third of children enrolled in rural schools may represent these abandoned children whose migrant-worker parents may never return home to see their "left-behind" children, but who send scant funds back home for their upkeep. There are an estimated 20 million such children across China, enduring life parentless. In the new China the jobs and the opportunities are located in the big cities. And China has a lot of mega cities.

Huge cities with immense populations that are swelling with development, and for whom the 150 million migrant workers produce sweat labour for inadequate recompense. Grinding poverty has been traded for unskilled construction jobs which, although paying inadequately, represent a higher state of livelihood than what was ever available back home in rural China.

In some remote villages the left-behind children can represent up to 70% of students in a school. Many children have been deprived of their parents' presence for so long they can barely conjure up memory of their parents. This type of elemental deprivation has a devastating effect on children, on their sense of self-worth and their place in a society where no one has the wherewithal to draw them into an adopted family circle.

They languish. In some districts attempts are made through the school system for a casual adoption system, built on a family structure, where teachers opt to represent the interests of such children who are given the option of selecting the teacher whom they wish to regard as a parent. To whom they can go from time to time, to express themselves, their hopes and fears.

"Since the families we form here are not real families ... it's not absolutely sure that the kids will accept you even if they have chosen you."

Chalk up another tragedy, another failure in the human condition to ensure the survival of functioning, well-balanced individuals to further society.

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Manifold Responsibilities Unmet, Unchallenged

It is wearying, after all, to contemplate what might have been, as opposed to what has transpired. Through neglect, through incompetence, through sheer disinterest in settling a problem before it has the opportunity to fester and become an unhealable canker, a disease in the body politic of the United Nations.

For it is not only the Arab nations surrounding the State of Israel, unwilling to accept a healing charitable response to the plight of fleeing Palestinians upon the creation of Israel and the following attacks upon the nascent state. A situation they had a hand in creating. Yet chose to withhold a helping hand. The United Nations too, must face criticism for its selective choices in offering assistance to one group and withholding it from another.

In the process, allying itself singularly with the offshoot of a large number of people displaced from their homes by establishing refugee camps and funding them on an ongoing basis, rather than applying the pressure of expectation of a humanitarian response from the Arab countries to the needs of their fellow Arabs. Perhaps it was that other countries considered Palestinians to be Bedouin, not of their own exalted status.

More likely that the Arab states, taking grave offence at the propinquity of a non-Muslim usurper on sacred Islamic soil, sought to encourage the refugees to remain in their squalid camps, with the knowing assurance that resentment and the aggrievement of a people unjustly deprived of their heritage would grow like a cancer, its cells rapidly dividing and becoming deadlier as time progressed.

For that is exactly what has occurred. Defiance and anger bred the violent determination to strike back, to re-capture what was taken from them, oblivious to reason, to the utility of planning for the future, to the possibility of bargaining in good faith for reasonable accommodation, and in the process seeking to create for themselves and their heirs a future. Which is to say a future beyond the encouragement of youthful suicide bombers and an early passage to paradise.

Throughout the bitter contretemps of the succeeding years the United Nations permitted a pervasive, pernicious, punitive atmosphere to fester, in the General Assembly. Where Israel would be singled out as an aggressor. Where the UN's membership agreed to single out Israel for contempt and for ongoing censure to prevail. For since 1947, regular UN resolutions have specifically dealt with the plight of the Palestinian refugees.

At the same time that Arab nations assembled their armies to confront the nascent Jewish State, they colluded to forcibly displace a like number of Jews, some 850,000, from their ancestral homelands in Arab countries. None of these Arab countries have ever acknowledged this reality, the state-sanctioned repression and persecution, the reality imposed upon Jews through de-nationalization, forced expulsions, illegal seizure of properties, arrest and detention.

Nor has the United Nations ever concerned itself with this unfortunate balancing of the Palestinian flight from within Israel's borders. Nor the fact that Israel accepted all of the expelled Jews, newly-penniless, from Arab countries, absorbing them just as in contrast, the Arab countries maintained the influx of Palestinians refugees at arm's length, offering them no hope for the future in their countries. Never has there been a whisper of recompense for property seized.

In preparing to once again commemorate the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on the 60th anniversary of the UN Partition Resolution that resulted in the birth of Israel, the United Nations is practising the deception of outright hypocrisy. As such it is as much responsible for the rise of Palestinian terrorism as is the Arab nations which conspired to keep the Arab refugees frustrated and friendless.

Now the reality of two bitter solitudes habitually in violent conflict with one another, unable to see beyond the enmity toward the humanity in each group, leaves a seemingly insoluble problem, advanced well beyond the point of even tortuous bargaining for an elusive peace solution.

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Upping the Ante, Increasing the Angst

Never one to relax tensions, seeming to revel in the shock waves she induces in her detractors, Iran is proud to once again announce internationally-unsettling advances in her search for more elaborate and technologically advanced instruments of death. So much for a theology of peace, the gravitas of a kind and benevolent Allah.

But then the world can also thank the United Nations for its delayed reaction to the threat of one nation demeaning the existence of another and within its hallowed halls ringing with the promises of equality and peace and the safeguarding of human rights, withholding censure when Iran threatens the existence of the State of Israel.

Belatedly, and under great pressure from the nations of the world upon whom the United Nations is most highly dependent for the monetary wherewithal that guarantees her existence, a broader censure was mounted on Iran for its illegal - under UN conventions - aspirations to successfully create nuclear weaponry.

In the interim, the announcement that Iran has developed a new long-range missile system, capable of reaching within Israel, and of making its mark also upon U.S. bases in the Middle East. Their gloating goal is to deliver the message time and again Israel's vulnerability against Iran's intentions in achieving a final solution become more and more imminent, if not possible.

Iran has more than enough company in her dedication to the obliteration of Israel. Syria, it now appears is concluding negotiations with Russia for the purchase of anti-aircraft missile systems whose capacity it is anticipated will more than adequately prove their value in shooting down Israeli warplanes.

Oh, and here's another message from the Lebanese military kindly alerting the world that Syria's urgent request to Moscow will also be met, with the provision of anti-aircraft systems which Syria plans to send along to Hezbollah. The new missiles are anticipated by year's end, it would appear, consolidating the duo's defence system against a tiny nation they are dedicated to destroying.

Kind of arse-backwards, isn't it? That the aggressors, promising annihilation of a neighbour, are frantically arming themselves in defence against the existence of that neighbour?

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Enlightened Islam

One supposes that it is never Islam per se that is enlightened, but many Muslims who cleave to Islam who permit themselves to become enlightened, eschewing the more basic elements of Islamic thought where the infidel presence is considered unworthy, corrupting, debased, along with his religion, institutes and politics. And where values of Sharia law are tempered by a moderate world view. Those of the greater Islam-worshipping population not wed to the efficacy and value of jihad.

While other world religions have somehow over the millennia managed to carefully and selectively modernize their essence to retain the vital aspects of their theology, yet embracing a more enlightened reaction to a slowly emerging modernity, inclusive of new technologies, scientific discoveries and relaxed social mores, Islam has remained static, unswervingly rigid in its stolid self-determination and righteousness.

Islam, as it is practised in some countries, most notably the Arab countries from which it sprang, is not transportable to a heterogeneous, emancipated urban society such as is found in the West. In its purest form it is a religion tailor-made to assemble a tribal culture, a nomadic society, under a single tent of spiritual belief, incorporating elements of the culture and traditions and setting them to a narrative text reflecting the society itself.

Where tribal nomads resorted to inter-tribal war to protect their survival opportunities in a geographically hostile environment, Islam was readily acceptable, assimilable to the needs of such people. Where the ancient practise of settling grievances with spilled blood as a lodestone of honour was a portion of the culture, Islam reflected this. The enemy is conquered by force of arms, not dialogue. The core narrative of Islam is that of holy jihad.

The Arab mind demonstrates a convulsive antipathy toward concessions. To concede anything in the interest of harmony is considered defeat. The greater good is defence of honour, subservient to all other personal, emotional and communal needs. In a heightened atmosphere of grievance, any overtures owing their utility to reason are construed as offensive, insulting, patronizing; an affront to honour.

Fanatical Islam is a poor fir with democracy, as fascism is with liberty.

In France where the revolution claimed its purpose to be Equality, Fraternity, Liberty, the country is convulsed time and again by the violent reactive mob rule of a jihad-infused mindset of young Muslims. Themselves affronted and aggrieved by the perceived and the real condition of social vulnerability in a country willing enough to grant them entrance, but yet incapable of pulling them into its inner core.

Once again France faces the nightmare of rioting in the streets. It has never quite faced up to the tragedy and the horror of entire city blocks in the suburbs of Paris where French police venture into the squalid ghettos of immigrant communities at their peril. The incendiary tinderbox of resentment and grievance against traditional French society is lit time and again through perceived slights offered to the Muslim community.

And then all hell breaks loose, with riot police attempting to quell the ungovernable wrath of young men who while yet born in the country of immigrant parents know from their experience that they are not quite French, but something that exists in a vacuum of acknowledgement. So businesses are looted and torched, vehicles are overturned and set afire, buildings and neighbourhoods trashed. Symbols of oppression.

And bone fide Frenchmen quiver and quake in their safe neighbourhoods and comfortable homes. It is not violence they see paraded before their horrified eyes, according to one of the rebellious youth. Rather it is an expression of rage. Hard to tell the difference.

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And So?

Much ballyhooed, and now it's over. Done with. History. Hope still lingers, however, despite that the Annapolis peace overture truly was a photo op, all good intentions aside. For truly, how long can this wearyingly intractable situation continue? Little wonder that the little people themselves, not the elite, the politicians, the spokespeople, the academics, but the Israeli and the Palestinian population harbour little faith in a conclusion approaching a peace settlement.

Sixty years is far too long to maintain a neighbourly disagreement. One whose emotional decibels and bloody violence has stained the living psyches of both sides. There seems little point in observing that none of this need have happened. That initially and at many points since the birth of the State of Israel, some kind of accommodation could have been met to satisfy at least some of the requirements on both side.

But it was not to be. Not that Israel and her politicians were blameless, but in comparison to the raw and hostile violence of the Palestinians, paragons.

Now the conference has been convened. The two belligerents enjoyed the opportunity to be feted at a state dinner, complimented and congratulated by their interlocutors for agreeing to agree to an agreement that would enable them to promulgate a final grand announcement. They jointly pledge to launch new negotiations toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Now there's a news-stopper.

Significantly, the transition from enemy combatants to tender neighbours in the space of a year yet to come. Small wonder the world nods its cynical head. Still, people do have hope, and why not, when all other avenues have led to uncontrolled strife and spilled blood? Try and try again. If you do not speak, do not make an effort to learn about one another, to recognize one another as one's living, breathing counterparts in survival, nothing can ever be achieved.

Other than hostility, more grief, greater commitments to larger atrocities.

And which country bears the brunt of expectations? Israel has much to gain from a future which might yet see something named "normalization" with her Arab neighbours. Yet if normal is considered to be that which exists: regular, standard, conforming to standard, typical - then normalization with her Arab neighbours can be construed as the status quo, more of the same.

For the fact is that agreeing to others' terms, in part or in full, equates in the Arab tradition with surrender, defeat. The looked-for "breakthrough" in negotiations from the Arab perspective aligns nicely with Israel accepting all of the PA's and the Arab League's demands. Which, in turn, equates with the pain of self-liquidation, agreeing to dilute Israel's purpose and mandate, its existence as a universal home for world Jewry.

Jerusalem is indissoluble. The sacred historical site of Jewish faith cannot be divided. Israel's first prime minister warned in 1949: "The attempt to sever Jewish Jerusalem from the State of Israel will not advance the cause of peace in the Middle East or in Jerusalem itself. Israelis will give their lives to hold on to Jerusalem, just as the British would for London, the Russians for Moscow and the Americans for Washington." But David Ben Gurion alluded to the historical political-secular values of these capitals. For Israelis there is another, overriding value of ancient history and dedicated faith.

Palestinians too stridently claim Jerusalem as their future capital, claiming that without it there would be no Palestinian state. That would figure in a culture and a tradition which is ingrained with an oppositional vibrancy in facing adversity, one which has historically met resistance with bitter resolve. Resolution requiring accepting a middle ground, a modicum of accommodation for all concerned, goes against the tribal grain.

So too is it with the insistence that "right of return" be accepted, that the original hundreds of thousands that fled or were encouraged to flee by both their Arab neighbours and their new overseers, the Israelis, be accepted back into the land, along with all of their descendants, a staggering number of Arabs to effectively dilute the Jewish presence in Israel, transforming it into yet another Arab state with a sizeable Jewish population.

As though there aren't sufficient problems existing between the majority Jewish population and the minority Arabs in Israel. The country would compound its problems beyond endurance and certainly beyond existence as it now recognizes itself as a Jewish homeland where its population remains internally safe and secure. Relatively speaking. For in the Middle East so much is "relative".

A safe and secure existence is not beyond possibility - for everyone. Absent long-range rocket attacks and very short-range suicide-murder attacks. There must but be the will. Nowhere is it expressed honestly at the present time. None of the politicians appear to have the courage to move forward, to declare unequivocal positions that yet offer manoeuvrable opportunities to satisfy each part of the equation.

Still, as the director of international outreach for the independent Israel Democracy Institute sighed: "In the Middle East, if you don't talk, you shoot, so talking is good for everybody."

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Puzzling At The Very Least

The Commonwealth nations have met, they have discussed and apportioned blame and given censure - applied themselves to solving some of the world's impending problems. They seek to find common purpose, agreeable solutions, and collectively chiding those among them who have yet to live up to the common standard of democratic enlightenment. Many of whom never have, and possibly never will. But as a working group, they are amiable toward one another and eager to retain their amicability.

Except when some of their members exhibit behaviours and mannerisms of government totally inimical to the people whom they govern and by extension, bringing a collective blush to their partners in enlightened governance. At which time, the offending state is punished by naming and shaming and ultimately a temporary heave out of the Commonwealth. When the offending entity has seen the light and instituted changes that more adequately reflect the expectations of the collective body, it is then invited back into the fold, suspension over.

All is forgiven. One great big happy family of nations most of whom share a heritage of one-time hegemony, as part of the British Empire during its empire-building search of world domination, looting the national treasures and natural resources of the countries it conquered in its quest. Eventually and slowly venturing into the modern era, Great Britain gave up its control of its former colonies and permitted them independence. Some prospered on their own, many more did not and remain mewling orphans.

All, however, choose to remain within the Commonwealth of Nations as former colonies of England, whose power and control over them was absolute. And from which experience most of those subservient nations took away much that was good about their former colonizer; a knowledge of a judicial system, a governing system, a value system that would stand them in good stead for their futures and of which inheritance they remained proud.

Robert Mugabe chose to thumb his nose at the Commonwealth and to remove himself willingly from the collective, knowing full well his country would not be permitted re-entry under his megalomaniac, destructively ruinous rule. Zimbabwe is beyond the pale. Now too is Pakistan, another Commonwealth country from away back when it was yet part of India. Just as committed to that heritage and distressed no end to be suspended. What's a leader to do when his mission has been sullied by villainous detractors and deadly jihadists?

On the other hand, there is always the example of other outstanding members of the Commonwealth nations. Take for example, the host country of this conference, Uganda. Pakistan was suspended for violation of its democratic principles and for installing a state of emergency and persecuting General Pervez Musharraf's political opponents. Whereas Uganda - the host of the palatial extravaganza, whose population suffers the degradation of want through subsistence existence - is humoured and effusively praised for the fine arrangements it made for the conference.

Uganda's sad human rights record, and the displacement of over a million people held in squalid internal refugee camps as a result of a 21-year war, might be said to place it in the very same league as Zimbabwe. That a situation exists of the enslavement of many of its people, including tens of thousands of child soldiers, might lead an onlooker to conclude that Pakistan should receive an apology and an invitation to re-enter the fold, with Uganda taking its place as the truly-deserving nation requiring suspension.

Perhaps it is seen as poor manners to criticize one's host, although he is known to have rigged elections, intimidated his courts and taken it upon himself to amend the country's Constitution to enable him to carry on as president for life, with no inconvenient term limits. Before the summit convened, Human Rights Watch was openly and highly critical of Uganda for violating democratic freedoms.

Post summit, some of the country's bravely outspoken critics of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, spoke with raging disparagement of his priorities in hosting a conference costing the nation millions of dollars while Ugandans are desperate for food to sustain themselves and their children.

So who are the hypocrites here, and for heaven's sake, why?

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Grim Realities at Annapolis

How much exactly is Ehud Olmert prepared to accede to the PA's demands? Well, it seems fairly certain that Mahmoud Abbas, the famous moderate, is not prepared to contemplate fair compromise with Israel, to accept a formula that while giving pain to each side, will also offer each mollifying promise for the future. And since it is George W. Bush's administration that has strenuously arranged the latest search for mutual compromise leading to peace, the omens do not look particularly hopeful for Israel.

In that a Bush administration much vilified at home and scorned abroad for its consistency in embarking on ill-fated adventures, remains determined to demonstrate to the world at large and its bitter enemies in particular that America is not to be trifled with. In the process leaving the country maimed in spirit and self-regard, resentful at the sense of its diminished international regard.

Let alone the enormous costs involved in prosecuting very unpopular, difficult-to-contain wars against elusive, forever-resurgent terror.

Having experienced ignominious failures in these enterprises, the administration casts about frantically for a cause that has the potential of smoothing over the angry wrinkles of public contempt and unease with their current lot. Triumph of accomplishment - where previous administrations and 40 prior attempts to launch a meaningful, ultimately successful search for a solution to the Israel-Palestinian aggravation - would go far toward securing a noble legacy, lifting Bush out of the mire of failure.

Which must go far to explaining why the Bush administration is leaning heavily on Israel for painful sacrifices, supporting in the process the state-crippling demands of the Palestinian Authority. As a spectacle the Annapolis-located Middle East peace conference convening on the morrow enjoys the attention of the world, along with a wide-ranging cast of onlookers, supporters and involved regimes; some 50 international representatives.

A significant portion of the Arab League will be present; above all for the golden seal of legitimacy, Saudi Arabia. Egypt and Jordan, both representing the nearest to Arab allies that Israel has on its slender list of quasi-neutrality, must cleave unequivocally to their co-religionists and Arab brethren. The larger hope is that additional Arab states will agree to finally recognize Israel's legitimacy. But at what cost? Saudi Arabia loftily, sternly warns that Israel must be prepared to accept pain for gain.

Syria's final agreement to be represented by her Deputy Foreign Minister, the choice of whom can be construed as being halfway between diffidence and a snub - with the U.S. promise that he will be permitted to raise the issue of the Golan Heights in his address, is more sinister than promising. For what would result from a handover of the Golan Heights is a push for heavy Syrian re-population whose dedication to further destabilizing the area in emulation of a northern-based Gaza-like area of hostility from which assaults can be launched upon Israel, will only re-visit history and remains the reason why Israel has retained the Heights.

But here is the world waiting with bated breath to see what could possibly result from this cliff-hanging summit at which much is expected from one source, and little from the other. Agreement to submit to demands to give up control and access to Judaism's most vital and sacred trust; to cede to a Palestinian state control over Islam's third most-holy site. To welcome the hostile dilution of a state whose promise was a refuge for world Jewry through the introduction of millions of 'returnees', along with a re-drawing of borders.

The assembled Arab states glowering with distaste at the presence of an infidel nation on sacred Islamic soil, insistent that for their grudging agreement to accept Israel within the geographic fold as a foreign but permitted entity, applying their intimidating pressure. The terror armies encouraged through the Arab League's indifference to acceptance of reality, now trained and funded and equipped by Iran and Syria, await the outcome in quiescent assurance that nothing will prevail to keep them from their purpose.

Iran, deliberately left out of the equation of settlement, identified as the enemy of Arab domination. And despite its support of and dependence upon Iran's largess, Syria is present to ensure its self-interest is not overlooked; its own bitter aggrievement with Israel in whose purpose it is happy to make common cause with Iran in the equipping and training of Hezbollah and Hamas; motley as they all are in their inner core, their searing hatred of Israel drawing them to a shared purpose.

They sit, squatting on the cusp of launching additional, more ambitious, better-equipped and determined attacks on the Zionist Entity. A "comprehensive peace"? How will that be accomplished, when neither Hezbollah nor Hamas, nor the various Fatah-related terror militias, martyrs brigades, memorializing jihadists, would willingly disarm to be brought under the larger canopy of acceptance and eventual peace?

Why would they, when Iran is always there, hovering on the sidelines, anxious to be of use, supplying the newest blood-shedding technology through its Russian and Chinese sources, supplying the supporting funds for honoured families of "martyred" jihadists?

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

The True Faith

Undiluted by modernity, by social mores in conflict with a literal reading of the Holy bible. That is the true faith, one espoused unflinchingly by the Roman Catholic Church, and by evangelical congregations as well as most truly fundamentalist conservative Christians. The others are pretenders, almost apostate in their leaning, their permissiveness, their theological anarchy. They bring shame to the tradition of the worship of God and to his emissary on earth, Jesus Christ. The Saviour.

There was a time, when Christianity expressed its passion by forcibly converting Jews, and those who would not be converted, who fled persecution, or who allowed themselves to be martyred; were fodder for that great annihilator of the unblessed, the Inquisition. There was a time when Christian knights took the courage of their convictions into action and marched purposefully to the Holy Land, their holy campaigns often funded by Jewish money-lenders, there to confront the armies of Islam and the killers of Christ.

Well, there was a time when missionaries fanned out in their conversion fervour across Asia and Latin America and Africa. Doing the work of God, converting the godless, the pagans, to the word of God, bringing them to his gracious, forgiving fold. Occasionally, in the process, committing grave offences against humanity, but that too is history. The passions of conversion and the urgency of bringing humankind to salvation excuses all excesses.

Now here is history being turned on its head. It was widely speculated after the death of John Paul II, during the Vatican's Council of Cardinal's voting process that it was now feasible, quite possible, that a candidate from Latin America, Asia or Africa might be elected to the highest office of Christendom. But not quite yet. Surprisingly, it would appear that all the seeds of conversion, so slow to take root despite careful nurturance has skipped a century.

There is a widely perceived religious malaise identified in the West, where religion has taken a back-seat to modernity eschewing reliance on religion for social cohesion. In contrast, a great surging emergence of increased conversion and dedication to the Christian Church is blossoming in those other geographies. Where cultural heritage and social tradition is naturally taken with the supernatural, pomp and ceremony, the majesty of spirituality.

Holy Scripture lives, it glows, it represents the deep faith of the Global South; missionaries did their work well. Now the game has turned; it is missionaries from the Global South who are migrating back to Europe, to tame the ungodly, those whose Christianity has become a shade of what it once was. The liberalism of evolution and sexuality is anathema to the dogmatic fundamentalists in Asia, in Africa and South America; they rebel against the traditional authority of Europe.

Now the Global South, representing much of South America, has reached back to Europe and to North America, to welcome distressed Anglicans back into the fold of conservative authority. A breakaway, parallel national Anglican church has placed itself under the authority of Gregory Venables, archbishop of the Southern Cone, in rejection of the Anglican church which is grappling with the ordination of women and gays, and the sanctioning of same-sex unions.

The Anglican archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, installed a bishop in the United States, bypassing the Episcopal church, which gave sanction to the consecration of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson. "All these people brought Christianity to us, but now the church is growing here [in Africa] like wildfire, it's spreading everywhere while the church in England is withering, the church in the States is going completely and there has been a cry, "Why don't you come" according to Archbishop Bernard Malango, the Anglican primate of Central Africa.

And so they do. They are sending missionaries to the United States and to Canada. Because, they say, those who brought Christianity to them have now lost their way and their will. The Holy Scriptures are being misinterpreted and soiled by the perception of individual freedom and personality no longer being defined by conservative religious values.

Faith triumphs over reason, yet again. Reason is the enemy of faith. And many Western-based Christians yearn for what has been left behind in a religion-emancipated environment now seen as hostile to true devotion.

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Annapolis: Diversion or Final Opportunity?

While it's anyone's guess whether or not the Annapolis convention will end up being an exercise in futility, a last-ditch effort at hauling the irreconcilable toward a solution painful, but eventually workable to both solitudes' benefit, the principles themselves don't hold out much hope for success. So why should the invited guests? And why should a world weary of so many past failures, grinding on seemingly forever, through one repeat after another of threats and violence?

Israel's current Minister of Defence has been there, done that. Actually in the process of being there in 2000, preparing to give much while receiving scant assurances. Despite which, throughout weeks of mind-numbing negotiations and hope, the other protagonist simply walked away from the table, launching the Middle East into yet another orgy of violence. What does this say for Palestinian negotiators, purporting to speak on behalf of the entitlements and aspirations of the Palestinian people?

That seared deep into their psyches is an actual inability to come to terms not entirely of their singular control and direction? And that to submit to a process whereby each side must control their deep desires for triumph and prepare to meet an adversary halfway goes counter to cultural, tribal tradition and is therefore unacceptable? A psychosis of denial, revenge, blame, victimhood leading to rejection of offers of compromise, lest it be viewed as total capitulation.

Hamas sits in Gaza, like a great heated lump of vengeance awaiting yet another opportunity to launch itself into a final oppositional surge of bloodlust. There is nothing, in fact, that the PA's Fatah can offer at the bargaining table, for the demands of the Palestinians are set in stone; these are pre-conditions, that East Jerusalem be handed over, some six million or so Palestinian returnees enter Israel's boundaries, that firm 1967 borders exclude Israeli settlements.

And even were those conditions to be finally accepted by a wearily defeated Israel, anxious for an end to attacks and some semblance of normalcy for its populace, the peace treaty's adjunct requirements that violent attacks against Israel cease cannot be guaranteed. They are, in fact, guaranteed to continue, even to accelerate. Ismail Haniyeh, no part of the peace bargaining, grimly promises that as a reality for future consumption.

Six decades of unremitting terror, of war against civilians on both sides is evidently not seen as enough sacrifice in the interests of absorbing the entire State of Israel into a larger Palestinian presence. After Yasser Arafat rejected the Camp David offer, promising nothing, but producing a bloody intifada, even the 2002 Beirut summit where Arab nations constructed a formula for peace, insisted the PA must end suicide attacks on Israel first.

The two sides have issued a general preamble putting on the table an ideal promise: "We express our determination to bring an end to the bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict between our people, to usher in a new era of peace based on freedom, security, justice, dignity, respect and mutual recognition and to propagate a culture of peace and non-violence. We affirm that peace can only be reached through historic reconciliation and the resolution of all outstanding issues by peaceful means in realization of the legitimate regional aspirations and self-determination..."

Wonderfully worded, with promise for peace inherent in its humanitarian declaration of intent. Philosophically, the construction of the statement cannot be faulted; it is in everyone's interest to follow through, to finally reach a purposeful and final settlement by which each party will feel it has done its best for those reliant upon them for the future. Where is the political will to bring the promise to reality? What authority will tame the wild tribal bloodlust of the terrorists?

If security and safety of civilian populations cannot be accomplished, then what else can?

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Natural Crises - Low Tech Solutions

It's an uneven contest; humanity versus Nature. Nature always has the upper hand. Which, on the face of it is only fair. For it is nature that has formed us to become what we are. Gifted us with the means to make our place in this world we inhabit. We inhabit it, but nature controls it. We are given implicit permission to make our way as we may and sometimes as we will, in her territory.

Occasionally, in her powerful and neutral way she demonstrates our inadequacies. Perhaps to counter our unbridled sense of entitlement, our hubris, our never-ending search to control her caprices.

And when that happens we are indeed humbled. More, we are aghast at the slaughter of our kind through the manifestations of her power; the typhoons, hurricanes, floods, tidal waves, droughts, and earthquakes that undermine our equilibrium in this sometimes-hostile world she controls. We cope with famine, with melting heat waves, with freezing temperatures, with drought and desertification and the sinking of inhabited lowlands, with volcanic eruptions and catastrophic dust storms.

Mankind is clever and resourceful, building upon its first faltering attempts at survival technology, from the use and careful tending of fires, to the fashioning of spearheads, on to mechanical devices to sow the fertile soil, wheels to transport ourselves and agricultural produce. From the steam engine to the nuclear power plant, we have learned to manipulate our environment, to stabilize and enhance our existence, to endure nature's excesses of turmoil and disruption on this mortal coil.

We use radar, sensitive earth-reading systems to deduct tremors, and earth-revolving satellite installations to inform ourselves of impending natural cataclysms to warn ourselves and to enable us to take remedial actions through our technological prowess. We are sometimes successful in forestalling outright disaster, more often not. From our resource-rich and economy-enabling first-world countries to our poverty-stricken third-world economies we pay the price for the reality of our existence.

We are permitted to remain in our environment, but the true owner, the transcendent and generally pleasant overseer of the property states the terms of our existence. Sometimes it is a transitory and extremely unpleasant one thanks to the happenstance of geography aligned with nature; more often it is for many of us a thankful interlude between personal afflictions, a tribute to the multifarious means of existence on earth.

When all else fails, be practical and innovative. The very most basic initiatives may sometimes be the only ones available to a population which has inherited their own particular geography which has not gifted them kindly. Technology comes at a cost, and if a nation is not wealthy, then technology and all of its infrastructures is too costly to be embraced. And that is precisely when a wise administration uses what it has at its disposal.

In the case of endemically impoverished and nature-ravished Bangladesh that would be its people. Which is why it was successful in forestalling a much greater tragedy than the 3,500 destroyed human lives caused by Cyclone Sidr last week. By training and instilling a sense of personal responsibility in a veritable army of early-warning volunteers who set out on bicycles and megaphones to warn coastal-dwelling Bangladeshis, a larger catastrophe in wasted human lives was averted.

That army, of 40,000 men and women trained in disaster-alert response, sprang into action once authorities gave warning that a deadly cyclone was heading in from the Bay of Bengal. The result was that approximately 3.2 million people were able to remove themselves from the direct invasion of the cyclone and its resulting carnage. Without the action of these dedicated volunteers, it is likelier that over three hundred thousand would have perished.

How's that for practical ingenuity?

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Medical-Science Breaking the Ethics Barrier

It's certainly good news. On the surface of the facts now emerging regarding the early success realized by two biological scientist in transforming ordinary human skin cells into embryonic stem cells by tickling them into reaction through the insertion of 4 genes, we have entered a new phase in scientific research. Capable of functioning for the purpose of creating specific-function cells as a precursor to emulating natural reproduction this is an amazing breakthrough.

With incredible potential, for this breakthrough is yet another advance, from another direction other than the one which has garnered so much criticism and suspicion. It's not merely good as a promising source of healing wracked human bodies with outstanding purport for the future of mankind; it's amazing. Which is to say, in the ability for the future of medical science to insert itself and its genius in creating options and a living future for people whose debilitating, life-shortening diseases and conditions may now be ameliorated.

The good news in another facet of the announcement is that there need now no longer be impediments in the way that such research and its promising applications may be funded. By charitable groups, by funding and research institutions, by private philanthropy, and by government itself, troubled by an urge of conscience or a belief in a higher spiritual being which dictates that the use of stem cells, as founts of human life is unethical. That by utilizing these potential life-giving cells for scientific enquiry, a human life has been sacrificed.

And that, furthermore, by dabbling in the arcane and little-understood process by which life can be manipulated through scientific enquiry and a myriad of experiments. Thus undertaking to do, through human hands and cerebral functioning, what God Almighty only is thought to be capable of performing. Contesting as it were, His monopoly on life, and in the process, negating His Divinity by an oppositional lack of judgement on the part of those who place science and the advance of medical intervention in life-challenging situations foremost.

Now here is a new technology, perfected to a certain degree, but only, it would seem, to the extent that it has been proven feasible to use normal skin cells comprising human tissue, and maneuvering them to produce a reaction; charging them to behave in the manner of embryonic cells capable of turning into and functioning as the 220 different direct-purpose cells in the makeup of a human being with all the concomitant and variousness of purpose, from blood, bones, eyes, tendons, sinews, muscles and yes, skin.

It's early days yet, and there can be no assurances that this new method of producing stem cell variants will be entirely convincing in the final analysis. Sufficiently so to repair hearts or spinal cords, restore sight or hearing loss and impairment, the deadly deterioration aligned with diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and other diseases that plague humankind. But it is another, and highly feasible direction to hope that medical science can continue its successful devising of alternatives to early death through the misadventure of disease or injury.

Should the ultimate research be successful, and the implantation become possible, of repair-purpose cells structured through manipulation from a patient's own original skin cells, the potential for failure is minimized considerably. The body's auto-immune response will then be forestalled as it recognizes its own cells, albeit altered to perform specific life-assisting properties. Eliminating the need for a recipient to be chained to the lifelong use of anti-rejection drugs with their own threat of iatrogenic complications.

The process would no longer compel the rejection of moral theorists and religious arbiters of permissive techniques of intervention who feel that human dignity has been impaired through the manipulation and destruction of a life-endowing human stem cell. Much as so many among us would readily give assent to the use of undifferentiated cell masses (foetuses), even stem cells, as being nothing more than tissues of potential for the use of medical research and eventual cures to whatever ails our mortal bodies, medical ethics itself seem to stand in the way of such progress.

The World Medical Association took it upon itself to declare a solemn pledge in 1964: "In medical research on human subjects, considerations related to the well being of the human subject should take precedence over the interests of science and society." Identifying the "human subject" with the human stem cell, a life not yet realized. Thereby recognizing the potential for life in that significant cell as being a human in its not-yet realized state of development.

Of course there is a philosophical school that adheres to the belief that all animal life is sacred, not merely that branch of animal life dedicated to humankind. That animals other than humans are capable of having and feeling emotions. They think, they react to situations within their environment, they have the capabilities of learning from their experiences, they are able to manipulate their environments. Yet the ethical question of their use as experimental subjects doesn't cause quite the same moral recoil.

Despite which there are more than enough individuals, scientists as well as the lay public, who believe implicitly that advances in medical research and human understanding should not be held back by high-flown beliefs in matters spiritual; that practicality and utilitarianism should trump in such high-stakes games resulting in potentially beneficial gifts to humanity. If this avenue does open opportunities to achieve the same potentials that appear inherent in embryonic research techniques, that source will now likely flounder on the shoals of total rejection.

Shutting off an earlier promising, and, in large part, successful avenue of progress in medical science and experimentation. One beset by moral objections from, among other sources, the Roman Catholic Church. Which institution has been swift in giving its seal of approval to this promising new research tool now emerging. Either way we may be promised an advanced and dependable long-range control over our genetic future.

And that can only be a good thing for all of us. Once we become successful in battling the problems besetting mankind by the failures of our mortally susceptible bodies, perhaps we can then turn our attention to a far more puzzling and obviously complicated portion of our physical-psychic beings, our brains. Eventually, if at all possible, determining why it is we function so emotively counter-productively to our very existence on this earth.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Relief in Iraq

Wouldn't it be quite wonderful if the hope now being expressed of a breakthrough to reason and civility in Iraq really did materialize? As impossible as that seemed a few months ago, may it yet come to fruition? Well, who really knows, after all. After all, even yet there are dozens of people being killed in car bombs, sometimes more, sometimes daily.

While in some parts of the country, and particularly in carnage-ravaged areas, something approximating daily normalcy is proceeding, encouraging Iraqis to finally believe beyond hopelessness.

Defenders of the war in Iraq are trumpeting the major cause of the turn-about as resulting from the U.S. troop surge of some previous months' vintage. Others more realistically point out the sectarian cleansing that took place as having a settling effect, with the effective separation of Sunni and Shiite from mixed neighbourhoods.

And then there was the stand-down of the al-Sadr Shia militias, and the refusal of Sunni chieftans to prolong their support of al-Qaeda, routing them from their jihadist predations.

The criminal free-for-all, the violent anti-social annihilation of all that augered counter to sectarian values promised to utterly destroy any semblance of hope for the future, for national conciliation, for a collective surge toward responsibility and moderation. Over now. Time to breathe in relief, to stroll suddenly quiet streets, even at night with lamps fully lit, markets in full operation.

The millions of Iraqis desperate to flee the promise of death, living as barely tolerated refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon have been returning to a more sane, promising world.
Or is it a more sane, promising world? Does their return speak more to their ordeal living as despised, needs-ignored refugees among other Arabs with whom they found little in common?

Having run through their emergency funds and dependent on charity, on even the charity of family and friends left behind in Iraq sending them the wherewithal to exist as refugees? Did they have any other options, with Syria pushing them harshly, impatiently, back over the border?

Iraqi loss of life during the war, post-invasion through internecine strife; lives lost to disease, starvation and the perils of dislocation, let alone merciless attacks from al-Qaeda, eager to sow as much dissent between Sunni and Shia as they could brutally manage is staggering enough.

The millions of internally displaced who have suffered great material loss and have little means of economic survival is still a reality.

Iran's predatory training and placement of insurgents, its mischief-making and long-term aspirations for Iraq can't be discounted. It will continue its support for anti-government militias and their destabilizing effect on the nascent Arab democratic hopes.

There does not appear to exist a distinguishable world-wide rush to invest in the country's future development. International capitalism appears to be withholding its trust in the future of the country.

It would appear that al-Qaeda in Iraq has slunk away into dark corners of oblivion, finally rejected as a liberating source of diseased violence. The pros and the cons. Which will prevail? Who, after all, knows?

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Beauty With Dignity

The Western world is accustomed to the public display of female beauty and the judging of it through the institution of beauty pageants. There are reactions to these public displays and to the message inherent in the pageants of women as objects betraying the ethos of bondage or liberation. Yet there are always ways in which such public displays can have a meaning outside of that which is usually associated with them.

The world is aware of the deadly scourge of maiming and disfigurement of civilians through the accidental demolition involved in the presence of anti-personnel mines, littering war-torn landscapes. Thousands upon thousands of these deadly devices are left over from war situations and often are located on arable land where peasants and farmers in third-world countries eke out their meagre living.

Countries as diverse as Cambodia, Bosnia, Zimbabwe and even the United Kingdom (mine clearing in the Falklands/Malvinas), are engaged in the life-affirming work of searching out and destroying these death traps. Angola succeeded in destroying its own stockpile of such devices last year and its land is gradually being cleared; a long-range project that could still extend into the next several decades.

Meanwhile, people inadvertently set off these land mines and in the process become their living victims, with amputated limbs and destroyed dreams for their futures. Angola is seen as one of the countries most seriously affected by land mines, with these unexploded weapons still littering the countryside, planted throughout decades of civil war. Mines and booby traps are unveiled in agricultural fields, under roads and even in schools.

About 80,000 people were injured by these mines during the civil war, and people continue to be victimized by their undetected presence. Rehabilitation services in the country are located geographically inconveniently for rural people. And even those facilities are capable of delivering assistance to a mere 25% of those that need them. In the last year alone roughly 140 Angolans were injured or killed by undetected land mines.

Now, an enterprising Norwegian film director has devised a way in which to attract the attention of the world to the problem, and just incidentally empowering disabled African women in the process. He has launched a beauty pageant where the contestants wear fashionable garments and pose seductively, smiling - in chairs, on beaches. They also have their crutches front and centre to balance the loss of a leg.

They look proud, defiant, graceful, and inexpressibly beautiful. Ten Angolan women injured by land mines have been selected to compete in the pageant. Interested viewers can see their images on line at, where information on each contestant can also be found - along with additional information about the types of land mines present in Angola and the costs of their disposal. Ballots can been cast for the winner, on line.

Two of the winning contestants will be crowned; a peoples' favourite and a jury-selected winner to coincide with the United Nations' International Mine Awareness Day, on April 4. The winners will be awarded prosthetic devices. Funding for the project has come from both Norway and the Angolan government. Jurists are to be selected from willing representatives of aid organizations.

These women are heroes of survival. Their beauty is transcendent. As representatives of a people whose fate it is to live with the daily reminder of a dreadful war of civil upheaval, they deserve attention and admiration. They are wondrously dignified and of surpassing physical beauty. Their defiance against their circumstances and their courage in the face of loss should stand as a lesson to all of us.

If life were fair and justice a rewarding experience, none of them would have to pose, to display their beauty in the hopes that they will prevail and be allowed free movement through the gifting of a prosthesis. The world is a weary place. With enough sponsors surely each woman could receive the gift of grace?

With enough people of good will there would be no wars, no victims. Dream on.

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Saudi Justice

Outrage continues to reverberate in the international community against the barbaric "justice" meted out by an Islamic Sharia court in Saudi Arabia against the victim of a brutal gang rape. Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist Wahhabist regime has instilled and maintained a soul-destroying formula for the existence of women within the nation. Its strict dress code - extended to the presence of foreign females as well - is disregarded only by those who wish to bring the wrath of the religious police upon themselves.

Saudi women are encouraged to shop in female-only markets, lest their appearance in public unleash ungovernable emotional responses in innocent men. Women are not permitted, by law, to be in a public venue in the presence of a male not of their immediate family. Saudi women may not legally drive a vehicle. There are few Saudi women able to practise professions, or actively engage in a work environment outside their homes. A repressive regime by any totalitarian standards.

A country where stoning to death is still applicable. Where, in lieu of stoning, a disciplinary exchange of lashing may be seen to be acceptable by the religious judiciary. It would seem that King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz realizes and understands the backwardness of his country. It might also appear that he is attempting some tenuous, sensitively-gauged steps to haul his country and its people out of the dark ages. It would appear that his attempts at mild reform find no favour with Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist clerics and its religious police.

Not to mention other members of the Saudi royal family, less interested in entering the modern era, and the gradual emancipation of women with the relaxation of rigid Sharia laws. Under his initiative the Saudi government appears to have instituted some moves to relieve the situation of women in the kingdom, going so far as to set up special courts to handle domestic abuse cases; a new labour law addressing working women's rights, along with the creation of a human rights commission.

Surface changes for the moment. For despite the enacting of such bodies and laws, the old medieval concept of women as objects, subject to men's desires and priorities, not much appears to have changed for now. The brutal rape by a teen-age Saudi woman by seven men in eastern Saudi Arabia last year garnered the men brief prison sentences, while at the same time earning the victim another brand of punishment for her own offence of being in a public place with a man not of her family; albeit a previous suitor.

Now 19 years of age and married post-rape, her husband strenuously supports her while decrying the cruel punishment meted out to her by a rigid religious hierarchy oblivious to the plight of female victims. "The court proceedings were like a spectacle at times. The criminals were allowed in the same room as my wife. They were allowed to make all kinds of offensive gestures and give her dirty and threatening looks."

A Justice Ministry statement explained that the permanent committee of the Supreme Judicial council had recommended an increased sentence for the woman after she had appealed her original punishment of 90 lashes to 200 lashes. Her husband describes her emotional condition as that of a "crushed human being".

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Creative Exploitation

Here is NATO and its associates lending themselves to a joint venture of humanitarian purpose in Afghanistan. Largely Western democracies determined to assist a legendarily imposed-upon populace and geography, to help lead it out of the wilderness of endemic poverty, warfare, religious intolerance and political corruption. Those very NATO countries whose own internal experiences are so far removed from the Afghan realities of warlords and religious fanatics imposing their corrupt and illegal rule on an impoverished, uneducated and vulnerable society.

In the doing of which the lives of our diplomats and our armed services personnel are placed in immediate peril of surviving attacks by fanatical militants. In the course of which attempt to aid and assist a weak government which has appealed for international support time and again, contributing countries invest a good proportion of the tax dollars of their own populations. If infrastructure funding and the funding to enable the operation of armed forces abroad are taken out of a contributing country's economy, they displace other, internal needs.

So here are countries like England, Holland, France, Germany, the United States and Canada - among many others - who have pledged their support in so many ways to the fledgling government of Afghanistan, most under great duress because of the unwillingness of their own populations to continue to prolong their own sacrifice for that of a distant, oppressed people. But in the interests of global solidarity against terrorism, and horror at the odious conditions in which people have been forced to live, the combined forces forge on.

Yet puzzlingly, yet not quite mysteriously, here is the government of Afghanistan through its president, Hamid Karzai, professing great friendship for a neighbour, Iran. An appreciation for its neighbourliness. Which happens also to include a predilection for becoming involved in all facets of jihadist strife in the region, invariably training and funding the very terrorists whom NATO forces are there to combat, and at whose hands they also die.

Well, it can be understood; after all, one trusts one's close neighbour, one with whom one shares a modicum of culture, tradition, history, religious belief. As opposed to foreigners whose entire social structure, values, way of life is completely other than what one has long been accustomed to. But whose good offices and assistance are nonetheless sought as valuable commodities to be beseeched for on behalf of one's country. In the process manipulating the humanitarian values of countries whose purpose otherwise is of no interest to Afghanistan.

One such purpose being that recently expressed within the United Nations when Canada led a censure - fifth time around - of Iran's unspeakable human rights abuses. To which Afghanistan saw fit to direct its diplomatic presence at the UN to vote with Iran's motion to avoid censure. And, concomitantly, to vote against the censure to single Iran out as a human-rights violator.

Leaving one to wonder why it is that Canada and Canadian troops are stationed in that country in a grievously dire effort to stabilize it toward eventual democracy, and freedom for its people. Tact was not missing when a senior official at the Afghan mission to the UN claimed "we enjoy a very fruitful relationship with Canada". As they most certainly do - in increased trade and investment, along with the first-line assistance in battling the Taliban.

As to why Afghanistan voted against the Canadian petition, and stood squarely with and for Iran, its neighbour which has never contributed anything to its well-being, no comment was forthcoming in explanation.

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Evolutionary Emotional Development

Most people are instinctively trusting of others, not quick to rush to judgement, willing enough to give others the opportunity to display their own trust in response. This is what makes us social creatures, our ability and willingness to give others some latitude in expressing themselves, in proffering the hand of friendship however tentatively. We relate easily to one another as though in acknowledgment that at the most basic level of instinctual response, we are more alike than different in our emotions and needs.

Now, it would appear, new research seems to confirm just that. A research team from Yale University has recently published a paper in the journal Nature affirming our biological evolutionary traits which enable us at an age young enough to preclude the effects of social nurturing, to evaluate others on the basis of potential helpfulness. A type of instinctual cognitive-visual processing that enables pre-language infants to assess an adult's character. Whereby a child will instinctively isolate a potential friend from a disinterested neutral.

That's pretty amazing. And, in a sense, encouraging. Since, if the ability to distinguish character types - those who are sensitive to the needs of others from those who express indifference and non-interference - exists at such an early stage of mental development, can we then not infer that most humans are capable of offering friendship and understanding to one another. And doesn't our own personal experience as adults inform us that this is so?

The surprising thing being that it is not only a conclusion arrived at by life's experiences, but one which we are geared by a kind of collective instinct to direct ourselves toward, accordingly. Most people, when approaching a stranger can offer the warmth of a casual greeting; two individuals passing through the often-mundane minutiae of life. Perhaps never to meet again, but in the brief exchange affirming our humanity.

Babies exhibiting an instinctual capacity to deliberately identify the potential of helpfulness and interest in another individual as opposed to other individuals whom they are able to discern lacks those attributes. And toward whom, as a result, they shrink from contact, while willing to absorb attention from the open-hearted others. Doesn't this represent an eminently practical value, in being able to discriminate between the two?

Of course nothing is that simple. And matters become rather complicated when, for example, young children succumb to troubling situations with strangers or even trusted friends when their judgements turn out to be incorrect. Placing them in dangerous situations where someone can readily prevail upon a child's instincts for trust, then betraying that trust through abuse or neglect or lack of emotional support.

Which produces another effect entirely, a pathology of judgemental impairment. And further, a self-doubt in the child's value to himself, to others, to society. Betraying a child's trust leading to denial, self-loathing, sociopathic tendencies. Likely most of us are born with the right stuff, the emotional well-being that makes us vulnerable to disappointment and rejection.

It is when our personal history lacks timely and urgent emotional supports that we become incapable of offering the same. It is the happenstance of nurturing or lack of it, of emotional support and critical encouragement or lack of it, that completes and complicates the transition from emotional security to emotional wasteland.

Just thinking. Just rambling on. Just trying to focus on what it is exactly that makes us so relatively well-adjusted socially. Or, on the other hand, completely bereft of empathy for others.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Musical Armaments

As in musical chairs. Shifting about. Trying out for supremacy of position. Instead of musical chairs, it's the shifting about of really serious arms. Succumbing to the blandishments of outsiders to make goodwill efforts. To demonstrate to one's deadly enemies that you do, after all, despite that they've proven time and again they have your untimely demise at heart, that you're the better person, and you forgive them.

Trusting that these generous actions will have the ultimate effect of instilling trust and the wish to counter your good deeds with those of their own.

In the case of Israel, grappling with the pressure of international condemnation against her half-century and more of strife with the Palestinians, desperately seeking to satisfy the demands of those who don't have to live with ongoing assaults, while also bargaining with the assaulters. Here is the United States, long a supporter of the State of Israel, and coincidentally, also in support of the needs of the Palestinians to lead their own independent lives freely and responsibly, urging Israel to accede to Palestinian demands.

Not only consider giving up the eternal dream of Jerusalem, give up the ancient lands of Judea and Samaria, shift borders back to "acceptable" limits, and think about accepting the return of millions of Palestinians who have never lived within the borders of Israel, but allow shipments of guns and ammunition to be delivered to Fatah.

The better to stave off onslaughts by Hamas against the legitimacy of authority of Fatah within the Palestinian Authority.

Tamp down those memories of a like number of Jews expelled from Arab countries, and bereft of compensation for their goods and properties. It is only compensation due to Palestinians that Israel need consider. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears on the cusp of agreeing to any and all demands.

Free hundreds of terror-inspired Palestinians. Forget that the IDF's Cpl.Shalit, forget the daily Qassam rockets; these are trifling no-account issues.

Moreover, Israel and Russia have combined efforts to produce an effect. Israel has convinced Russia to provide Chechnya and Chechen rebels with armaments and ammunition in a sure-fire effort to convince the Chechens that Russia is their friend, not their enemy, and is willing to provide them with all that they demand in the interests of living together peacefully.

This is a fiction, you say? Russia would never agree to such an outrageous, self-inflicted wound?

What about the reverse, that Israel and Russia are co-operating in a measure to supply the PA with hundreds of guns, millions of bullets and 50 armoured vehicles? Another fiction, surely, since don't we know from past experiences that all these "good-will" gifts will eventually end up in the hands of Hamas?

Well, the IDF and Israel's Security Services regard it as a joke, albeit a wickedly dangerous one, and refuse to support it. Nonetheless, the transfer must take place.

Ehud Olmert will donate a thousand guns and two million bullets to PA forces; yet another gesture of co-operation with Fatah, whose charter still calls for the elimination of Israel. This is the "moderate" choice that Israel is trustingly working with, in strenuous efforts to bring about a long hoped-for peace settlement with the PA.

Palestinians deserve no less. Palestinians have for so long been fed a hopeless line of hateful propaganda against Israel they hardly know what to demand of their leaders, and what to support to gain them a future.

The lunatic charade of dealing with reasonable leaders interested in peace with their neighbours marches on.

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